C'est fun, but c'est n'est pas Les Mis…

Illumination by Matthew Plampin

Given the love for all things French and 19th century at the moment thanks to the film I still haven’t seen that is Les Misérables, it was a good time to read a revolutionary novel. Illumination is set later than Hugo’s masterpiece,  during the Siege of Paris of 1870-71 in the Franco-Prussian War. It chronicles the siege through the story of the Pardy family – English ex-pats trapped in the City of Light.

The novel begins in England with Hannah Pardy running away from her overbearing mother Elizabeth and her literary salons of fawning authors that she hopes will provide a suitor for her daughter. Hannah is off to Paris to become a painter. There, she meets and falls for Jean-Jacques Allix, a revolutionary who wants the Parisians to fight for their city.

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café”—a scene published in the Illustrated London News of 17 September 1870

No sooner is she settled in Paris, than her mother arrives with her twin brother Clement in tow, lured by an anonymous letter saying than Hannah is in trouble. Their arrival is on the day all lines of escape are later cut off from the city, thus trapping them there. The scene is thus set for a novel of adventure, romance, intrigue and war.

Allix, clad in black is an irresistible leader and his form of oratory is popular in the Paris cafés. Not everyone believes in him though – the balloonist Besson, whom Clement befriends, is one.

All three of the Pardy family get stuck into the siege as it takes hold: Hannah through Allix, Clement through the balloonist and falling for the charms of copper-tressed ‘cocotte’ Laure; Elizabeth meanwhile, as an author and journalist, undertakes to advance the cause of the revolutionaries through writing up Allix’s exploits for the Paris newspapers, and he gains a popular nickname of Le Léopard.

Although full of history, some of the details in this novel seemed to have been thrown in to tick the boxes to ensure that nothing major had been omitted, something I checked by looking up the Siege of Paris on Wikipedia. Digressions into ballooning made the middle somewhat flabby, and at 400 pages was a little on the long side.

I did like the evolution of Clement from bored young man to adventurer and lover, whereas I found his twin Hannah to be rather brittle. Elizabeth for all her faults, which are many, sailed through the siege with considerable sang-froid.  This was a pageturner of a novel that wears its history lightly, concentrating on the characters, and I enjoyed it a lot. (7.5/10)

* * * * *
I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Illumination by Matthew Plampin, pub Jan 2013 by Harper Collins, Hardback 400 pages.

P.S. – I edited this post to get my French dates right!

0 thoughts on “C'est fun, but c'est n'est pas Les Mis…

  1. Col says:

    This is a period in history I really like. I might give this a go. Like you I’ve not see Les Mis on film – yet – doing so tomorrow – hope it lives up tothe hype, the fantastic theatre version and the wonderful book!

    • gaskella says:

      Col, Have you read Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure’? (My review here) Set just pre-revolution – It’s marvellous, better than this novel I thought, although I did enjoy Illumination.

      • Col says:

        I did read “Pure” Annabel, and like you I thought it was wonderful! I was also lucky enough to go on one of those Guardian writing workshop things last year – Andrew Miller led one of the sessions and he was great at that too!

  2. Alex says:

    I’m another reader who’s been meaning to read ‘Pure’ but Dante got round to it as yet. Perhaps I should read this first so as not to be disappointed by it after the Miller.

Leave a Reply